29th of January 2018Customer stories

Wattle Organic Farms: sustainable from paddock to packaging

Managing Director of Wattle Organic Farms, Nathan Free, is a fourth generation horticulturist with a passion for sustainability (in farming, and in life). After winning the AUSVeg Young Grower of the Year Award in 2014, and backing it up with a Nuffield Scholarship in 2015, Nathan is now running one of the largest organic farms in Australia and is showing no signs of slowing down and has been supplying Woolworths directly with 500 tonnes of stone fruit and 200 tonnes of tomatoes annually since 2012 in custom moulded sugarcane pulp containers from BioPak.

He’s a passionate advocate for organic farming and sustainable business practices, and a big believer in the principles of circular economy. We love talking all things eco with like-minded kin, so we interviewed Nathan to hear more about the eco-friendly practices in place at Wattle Organic Farms (including their adoption of recyclable/compostable packaging).

What made you decide to move towards organic farming?

We started growing certified organic produce so that we could provide consumers with food that was naturally nutrient dense and free of synthetic chemicals. When we were conventional farmers, we were already practicing more natural methods to food production, but due to the added costs, we were uncompetitive in the traditional market. Our transition to certified organic production was not an easy road due to unforeseen weather that resulted in lower than predicted production.

Unlike conventional farming, your family have always preferred to use compost, soil management, and soft fungicides, instead of harsh chemicals. How has this move affected your business? Are the principles of a circular economy (designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems) relevant to you, given the farm’s dependency on compost?

Yes. As an organic business we utilize our internal waste (cosmetically challenged produce) into our compost production thus then is reapplied to the soil as nutrition to build soil health, plant health and nutrition for the food that is produced.

However, this is not our only input into our compost production we bring in other carbon: nitrogen products (almond hulls, cow manure, straw, chicken manure, etc.) that are the majority of our annual 1,200 tonnes of compost production.
For food sustainability we need to see a push from consumers to accept more of our cosmetically challenged produce, like any economy if we can sell more of our commercial crop and not put it in the compost pile we will be able to provide a more reasonably priced product to all organic consumers.

What practices do you have on the farm to collect and divert waste?

We compost all our waste fruit and vegetables and any spoiled packaging from our packaging facility, and as we have the only composting site in the area, we also manage fruit waste from farms in the area.
As a business we have made a real push towards lowering our waste footprint, we used to have two large rubbish bins that were filled and emptied weekly now we partially fill one bin.

When it comes to products for human consumption (like food), single-use packaging is essential to ensure the safe and hygienic delivery of food. By choosing recyclable and compostable packaging, Wattle Organic Farms packaging isn’t just tossed in the trash, it can be repurposed as a new product or turned into soil that delivers nutrients back to the earth.

In the age of climate change and the devastating effects of plastic pollution, how important do you think eco-friendly packaging is for businesses?

At Wattle Organic Farms we wanted to ensure we were the first adopter of compostable packaging in the organic supply system as we wanted to continue the organic principles through to the consumer, not using inferior plastic or Styrofoam trays covered in petro-chemical stretch film.

Aside from using our recyclable and compostable packaging, what eco-friendly practices do you have in place on the farm?

On the farm, we aim to sustain a balanced soil ecosystem this is done by turning in all post production vegetable crops, and all the prunings from the stone fruit trees are left to degrade underneath the trees they fell from. Where on some conventional farms these old plants or tree prunings are pushed to the corner of the paddock and burnt, where they lose nutrients and carbon to the sky. Also, in addition to the use of compost to build soil health, we also grow green manure crops. Green manure crops are a diversified range of grasses, legumes, and herbs, sown in autumn and incorporated into the soil in spring before sowing of harvested crops.

What influenced your decision to choose BioPak eco-friendly packaging?

We partnered with BioPak as they were a driving force in the sustainable packaging space, and also held ideals like ours to build a healthier planet. Also, we needed a nimble and proactive packaging business to work with us to develop the packaging we needed for our consumers. We required packaging that was going to maintain its form and look as good when it left our facility as it did arriving in consumers' hands. And, of course, keeping the produce fresh and most importantly being sustainably sourced and produced.

Do you think there is enough support (from local and federal government) for business who are seeking to introduce sustainability-focused practices?

As a business, we were lucky enough to receive a Victorian Government based grant which assisted us in funding a semi-automatic flow wrapping system also encompassing check weighing and metal detection components. This assistance has supported us in our transition to more sustainable packaging. However, more needs to be done by the government to encourage more business to transition to recyclable/compostable packaging.

In order to preserve the planet for generations to come, both businesses and consumers need to up the ante when it comes to aligning with the principles of a circular economy. What are your thoughts on how we can best encourage other businesses to engage in sustainability-focused practices (like choosing compostable packaging).

Speaking honestly, I would like to see all manufacturing business including fresh produce production get with modern times and use recyclable/compostable/biodegradable packaging for their products. While some producers are still packaging with cheap inferior packaging, it punishes the early adopters of sustainable packaging that are actually helping the planet, towns and the people who live in them.  

There should be a national amnesty on packaging that does not meet the recyclable, compostable or biodegradable standards allowing all manufacturing businesses to begin, if they haven’t already, a brighter and cleaner environment for future generations.